Columns

Kumar ’17: The restricted section of the Rock

By
Staff Columnist
Friday, October 21, 2016

As a typical college student, I spend a lot of time in the library. The Rockefeller Library — more commonly known as the Rock —  is my location of choice on campus. I find it more welcoming than the Brutalist Sciences Library or the stuffy, no-food-allowed John Hay Library. My use of space in the Rock has varied over time, beginning on the first floor before shifting to the Absolute Quiet Room, then to the carrels by the front windows on level A and even brief stints in the depths of level B and the stacks of level three. During reading period and finals, when cramming students displace me from my usual haunts, I have also frequented the undergraduate computer cluster on level two.

Correction: the former undergraduate computer cluster on level two, newly christened the Vincent J. Wernig Graduate Student Reading Room. In case you have yet to witness the renovated space, the computer cluster and several other rooms on the second floor have been dedicated solely to grad students. The relatively stark aesthetic of the renovated study center, with its blue carpet, white lights and sterile furniture, is in contrast with other parts of the Rock, which, though outdated, are warmer and more inviting. Undergrads are strictly prohibited from entering — the space is restricted by card access. The glass enclosing the study center creates a fishbowl effect through which undergrads can observe the grad students utilizing the space without the satisfaction of ever stepping inside.

Of course, I understand the merits of creating a space on campus reserved for grad students. As a Herald story on the planned renovation noted last November, library renovations over the past decade have concentrated on undergraduate learning, and nearly all of Brown’s peers already possessed spots uniquely used by grad students. In addition, a more recent Herald story illuminated the dearth of on-campus housing options available to grad students, which contributes to a more general feeling of exclusion from campus life.

But it is neither the creation of a grad-student-specific space nor the desire to renovate campus facilities with which I take issue. Rather, I feel that this particular project does little to foster a greater sense of community between undergrads and grad students or to advance the Rock as a hub of learning and collaboration. The renovation is the latest manifestation of the University’s recent orientation toward its graduate programs, which Duncan Weinstein ’17 thoughtfully called into question in a recent op-ed.

The new grad student study center misses the mark because it replaces an undergraduate space that already enjoyed a significant amount of activity. The undergraduate computer cluster had printers and scanners, in addition to a gorgeous view of downtown Providence. The space was packed during peak study times and well-used during lulls. In the wake of the second floor’s transformation, I almost feel unwelcome when venturing there, and other undergrads have expressed to me their dismay that this part of the Rock is no longer available to them. The renovation has been billed as a creative endeavor, but that creation required the sacrifice of a pre-existing, functional space.

Furthermore, I question why the library should be the site of a grad-student-designated zone and why access to that area should be restricted so visibly and adamantly. As mentioned above, I support completely the belief that grad students should be better integrated into student life at Brown and that this necessity calls for the allotment of specific places where they can congregate and form a stronger community. At the same time, the library ought to be at the heart of the so-called “university-college” to which Brown aspires, where undergrads, grad students and professors occupy the same spaces, communicating freely and productively. As a place of intellectual discovery and exchange, it seems counterintuitive to me to partition off different sections of the library to be utilized by different groups.

In fact, the former undergraduate space­— while designated as such — was not restricted to others apart from a sign on the door and was connected to a smaller grad-students-only computer cluster. Under this arrangement, undergrads and grad students alike felt comfortable in utilizing the second floor of the Rock, occupying adjacent spaces without feeling forcibly segregated. The renovation’s greatest flaw is the decision to police its use by card access — this seemingly innocuous addition alienates undergrads from graduate students. The removal of this feature would immediately ameliorate its unwelcoming aura without detracting from its dedication to grad students.

Perhaps it is petty to single out this newly formed grad student study center as a site of contestation of the University’s values, especially since my personal feelings for the Rock so immediately inform my judgment. But at a time when Brown is undergoing important changes in its structure and vision for the future, it is necessary to reflect upon and critique the manner in which the university is growing and evolving — and no detail, be it carpet color or chair selection, should be spared. The challenge of welcoming grad students more closely into the Brown community while balancing the demands of many stakeholders and maintaining the University’s identity is great indeed, but the final answer does not lie in the spatial division of the library.

Nikhil Kumar ’17 can be reached at nikhil_kumar@brown.edu.

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